Traveling Locally in Little Known Places

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For travelers, a view in July 2017 of travel from Fresno to Kettleman City, CA with recognition through pilgrimage of Fresno writer William Saroyan's remembrances of his youth here, as well as his latter years. The Sierras nourish the towns below the foothills along Highway 99 and crossing through them feed the melon fields and orchards of the central valley from the east side. Today the California Aqueduct feeds the great San Joaquin Valley from the west side side. The little towns are not as little as when Saroyan bicycled through, but they are still there. When the day is hot, it is hot all day, and the butterflies and yellow blossoms of the playing fields of local youths, the vacant lots, remain to stimulate their imagination on yet another morning.

Chapter 3 (v.1) - My Own Journey To Hanford

Submitted: July 27, 2017

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Submitted: July 27, 2017



My Own Journey To Hanford

By S. Pearce, © 27 July 2017

William Saroyan, the San Joaquin Valley writer, described his hometown of Fresno as an “ugly,” and “itty bitty” town.In a chapter in his self-revealing My Name Is Aram titled The Journey To Hanford, he memorialized a locale near his hometown where he “did time,” in the life experience sense when he was about 14 years old.  He reported he was only too happy to get out of Fresno one summer and spend time in Hanford, 27 miles to the south then, to keep an “uncle,” company as he worked, and cook for him.  He described the experience through his protagonist in the memoir, the youth Aram.  Hanford likely consisted of about 6,000 people or less in 1922, when the uncle, described by the grandfather as a fool who would sit and dream and play the zither all day was sent there to labor in the watermelon fields for the season and return with money.  He was to take Aram along to cook rice and to be a companion.  Mainly they were sent so the grandfather could have some peace, he said.

Saroyan described Aram hiked on the handlebars of his uncle’s bicycle starting south over Highway 99, whatever condition of road it may have been then, but it accommodated bike riders – later riding along current Highway 32.  He walked sometimes, and his uncle biked, or they reversed it, until they arrived in the town late in the afternoon.  Hanford, was and is the county seat of Kings County serving a small agricultural community as the center for farming businesses, a place where melons and other crops easily grew.  The two had been given money to rent a house for a month, which they did for $6.  Saroyan’s imagination served it up as an empty 11-room house providing gas and water but no electricity, which they did not care about anyway, and empty of furniture except for a convenient bed and couch.  The morning after the night they moved in Aram hustled his uncle out to find work.  Aram said:

“It seemed to be a nice region of the world in daylight.  It was a street with only four houses.  There was a church steeple in front of the house, two blocks away.”

His uncle returns in short order saying the farmer told him the season was over, the watermelons were all picked and there was no work.  Aram suspects the farmer remembers his uncle from the previous year and just doesn’t want to hire him but nevertheless his uncle and he relegated himself then to doing nothing for a month other than staying in Hanford.  The uncle played the zither and sang beautiful, melancholic songs, and Aram cooked rice that was “sometimes salty…sometimes swill…sometimes perfect.”  When they returned home his grandmother slipped him money to give to the grandfather to imply they had earned it in Hanford and no harm was done.

From My Name Is Aram, William Saroyan (1937, Harcourt, Brace…NY, NY)

The north border of Fresno County, Fresno has expanded to that line today, is the San Joaquin River, which descends from the Sierras, passing into western Fresno County then turning north to drain the Valley up to Stockton where at the Delta it merges with the Sacramento River and flow into San Francisco Bay.  Fresno County’s southern border is another Sierras river, the Kings, dropping from Kings Canyon.  Kings River feeds little towns around Fresno and Hanford then forks south joining the Fresno Slough.  West of Hanford is Lemoore where Highway 41, also extending south from today’s Fresno, and criss-crosses the various diversions of Kings River as it feeds farmland.  The motorist passes as many contiguous orchards as the water allows, eventually draining out at the now dry land of old Tulare Lake.  Highway 41 exits the usually dry lake bed, and runs steeply up a hill past fast food chains, a few gas stations, and a couple of motels at Kettleman City.  On its north side set behind these highway accommodations to travelers is a modest community of old residences.Where Highway 41 crosses over Interstate 5 travelers can enter or exit the highway or pass over it, heading off southwest to the Highway 101 town of Paso Robles, a town that trades high on nostalgia, including its architecture, not unlike Hanford in its own way Hanford is centrally located in the county about eight miles south of Kings River. 

Fresno, the “ugly” little town has modernized, but at the northern county line before one enters the old realm still extant of Fresno’s customary appearance of weeds along pavements at railroad crossings and vacant lots, it hosts now many years a memorial to fiscal mismanagement of the 1990s in the form of a truncated construction site of a highway overpass, resplendent with crane hoisted in mid-air and just left there, no sense of order to it.  An agreement was made to construct a highway link with each county contributing, concrete pillars were erected on the east side of 99 and above it, rebar is in place, a crane in service, positioned precariously above southbound travelers and construction was stopped, for lack of funding for the construction to move over the county line.  The scene remains frozen in time – a tableau to failed commitment. 

Something to do with one county completing its dedicated expenditure and the next reneging or unable to meet its commitments, with private entities also unable to meet financial obligations due to how their funds were managed, or anticipated funds were no longer available.  But…Fresno was always a railroad town anyway.

Fresno appears a town that is welcoming.  It welcomes all types of things.  The homes are not necessarily over-sized but when money comes in, it seems willing to try to expand wherever the developer wants to go be it into university neighborhoods with malls and strip malls dragging traffic with it, or setting off on a new direction out into the valley, following the water.  Fresno is a weedy town celebrating whatever boldness it embraced in the mid 20th century, by basically remaining itself, its vacant lots still anchoring the flora and fauna bountiful with yellow-faced flowers, signatures for this region, seemingly taking comfort in being at home.  It is also a town that does not seem to have received the memo prohibiting litter.  Some towns are manicured; others don’t get collecting litter; Fresno’s impressions are in its continuity.

The neighborhood Saroyan suggests was his during the years he lived there while young included Walnut and Olive Avenues, near Emerson and Longfellow Schools, near the Tulare Street Presbyterian Church, and out on Ventura Avenue near the fairgrounds, not to mention the Sierra ditches and drainages of Calwa, Malaga and Thompson Ditch, and the place where Aram reportedly spent most of his time, the Fresno public library.  Though his family moved frequently within this locale, it would appear that his own home and immediate neighborhood were essentially bulldozed for highway advancement years ago.

Trains in Saroyan’s stories contribute to the senses and to nostalgia; not just the freight trains but the passengers; bus travel too, for that matter; they stimulate memory.  Freight whistles dominate daytime and night, at the Fresno rail yard.  The San Joaquin Valley hosted many railroads in their heyday, bearing train lore’s romance in the names Southern Pacific, Central Pacific, Union Pacific, Santa Fe and others plus trunk lines, ultimately crossing east-west, north-south up in Stockton.  Soldiers on troop trains passed through and remembered the landscape’s virtues.  Fresno rail parallels Highway 99, but the rail yard that abuts the highway may be the integrated heart of Fresno while the rest of the city goes through its changes. 

It is massive, with rails imbedded in the highway, which crosses them at an open entrance.  Saroyan honored train sounds and the appeal they offered to imagination, if a melancholy one.  He honored freights passing through town, and those who hitched rides on them, the hoboes, and the tramps, sometimes vagrants without funds passing through his neighborhood.  Train whistles were a call to adventure.

“…a freight train puffed and roared far away. The boy listened, and felt the earth beneath him tremble with the moving of the train.  Then he broke into running, moving (it seemed to him) swifter than any life in the world.

‘When he reached the crossing he was just in time to see the passing of the whole train, from locomotive to caboose.  He waved to the engineer, but the engineer did not wave back to him.  He waved to five others who were with the train, but not one of them waved back.  They might have done so, but they didn’t.  At last a man appeared leaning over the side of a gondola….(the boy) Ulysses waved to him, too, and then a wondrous and unexpected thing happened.  This man, waved back…shouting:  “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!”  The small boy and (he) waved to one another until the train was almost out of sight.  Then Ulysses looked around.  There it was, all around him, funny and lonely—the world of his life.  The strange, weed-infested, junky, wonderful, senseless yet beautiful world.’”

The Human Comedy, William Saroyan (1943, Harcourt, Brace…NY, NY)

And as one drives by, the world becomes as overpowering through the rhythm of the tracks as it did in any year.

Having visited in the ‘90s, I knew where the “uptown” area near the new malls were where Saroyan lived after he permanently settled in Fresno at end, raising eyebrows with “Saroyanesque” youthful antics.  It is probably appropriate to note that as a toddler he, with a couple of siblings, was admitted to an orphanage by his widowed mother, and remained there, though his siblings were returned home, many more years than he wanted to remember until through some type of intercession finally hitting home, he recognized he was almost an adolescent by the time the orphanage announced it was closing and moving and the family simply had to take him home.  His formative years were spent in Oakland, as were those of another definitive California writer, whose mother was abandoned by his father, Jack London.  “Water, water, everywhere…and not a drop to drink.”  Ceres’ children. 

Due to his tax problems with the IRS, to whom he needed to pay hefty sums to resolve previous under-payments, this happening when he was not at the peak of his heyday, though he remained always marketable to fans, he reportedly made the choice to live six months of every year in Paris, France, that is; and the other six months in weedy, redolent Fresno!  He collected back as much of his publishing rights as he could; stopped publishing new editions of some works, discouraged productions of some plays, and wrote incessantly but did not send in much to be published.  He was a fast typist, he reported; and would type for hours, over night, and on for days.  When he was through he would read over what he wrote, and laugh uproariously, declaring the piece the best he ever wrote; he would know for he understood how a writer improves, then he would set it aside and leave his work stacked up in boxes.  He would not cut down, manicure, or trim his lawn much to the consternation of city dads and neighbors.  He resolved the controversy in true Saroyan fashion by purchasing the house next door, which sat on a kind of a corner, used that as a storage site, but generally kept that yard neat and trimmed for the tourists who drove by to see where he lived to consider satisfactorily that it was his home and moved on.  Meantime, he lived next door amidst overgrowth and whatnot.  So the traditional story goes.

Doubtful I would locate a Highway 43 sign in Fresno to drive seven miles to Hanford, I quickly turned onto Highway 41 as soon as I saw an indicator, which is as straight and flat as it appears on a road map.  After a few overhead stops, one crosses Kings River, then passes over Kings River again, and again over Kings River; and at Grangeville Rd, turns east back to Hanford.  Clearly, I was not headed into downtown this way, but in the heart of residential living stopped at an intersection convenience store for directions.  Let us call the pleasant male clerk “Yinsin” a variation of his nametag. 

“Could you tell me how to reach the Main Street of downtown Hanford from here?”  Yinsin bent backward, reflecting doubtfulness.  “I am not really good on Main Street or the downtown part; is there a Main Street? I think I know it, but…okay, on your phone, click….”  “I’m sorry; I don’t have a smart phone; just a little basic flip phone.”  Yinsin said, “Wait; I can check this,” and taking his own smart phone in hand asked “Where is the exact address you want to go?”  “I don’t have an address; I just want to visit the downtown area; I am traveling through and I want to see the town, maybe take some photos.  Can you look up City Hall, its address?”  Yinsin looked puzzled.  I remembered I was in Kings County.  “Or, the Kings County Courthouse, or, better, the Public Library?”  I knew that none of these buildings necessarily would be found in any county seat’s downtown anymore, but it was a first try.  Yinsin said, “I know.”  He clicked on his cell phone and showed me a street map with a starred point indicating that there something was.  I said, “How do I get to those streets from here?”  He looked constrained, then out the window, and pointed down the Grangeville Road in the direction from which I had driven.  He added, “You will have to turn a little ways down there…turn right (I knew not to do that).”  “You mean, left?”  “Right, turn left; that’s it; I’m sorry, I don’t know.”  “What street would that be where I would turn, and how far down (I tried to be low key about it.)?”  He looked puzzled and I said, pointing to the north/south street out the window, “That is 10th I think, right?  Would I turn at 12th or 14th if I drive back that way?”  Yinsin said “12th…wait…it’s 12th.”  I said “Will that take me right down into the heart of the town, if you have any idea?”  He said, “If you come to the railroad tracks you will know you are, well, actually, a little past it, but you will see where you are when you see the railroad tracks and then turn right and go down.”  “I will see the railroad tracks up ahead and before them, turn right?”

I trapped myself in the left turn lane coming out of the convenience store lot as if heading back toward Grangeville so I was committed to make a left on 10th anyway.  Approaching the railroad tracks, I saw a high traffic cross street and turned and, indeed, it appeared to be Hanford’s old main drag.

A wide business retail street of the 1950s and ‘60s, it was, most shops rehabbed, not in tatters, and the street was surprisingly long.  It was busy in terms of traffic, enough but still plenty of curb parking.  I was quite impressed with Hanford’s commitment to what a number of American towns are doing now, honoring their continuity to the past by retaining, rehabbing and re-using architecture of the past in repurposing buildings.  An upgraded hotel building at a major intersection seemed to house a first floor Middle Eastern restaurant open and appealing from curbside.  I drove another block, doubled back twice to the right, took advantage of a free public parking lot, and started to walk to back to the major intersections, camera in hand.  Good thing.  Ahead of me on the left, was the old block size county courthouse; an elaborate Victorian/Edwardian structure of gothic rooflines detailed in stone. 

Hanford took a significant step in recreating its downtown into a place of beauty by its storeowner and those in charge of public buildings agreeing on a warm beige, desert sand, yellow and tan pallet with some sky blue and white added in painting the exterior of its many streets around the old courthouse, which now seems to house private offices, notwithstanding.  Facing north at the courthouse building, there are three main east/west streets south of there, about three west of the building, and two east, with additional side streets running east/west from the building mid-block.  And they are not short streets.  Somewhere along the line, Hanford developed an impressively sized commercial district downtown.  At the southernmost east/west street a major hotel chain holds forth, as of a railroad hotel in days of yore, and behind it runs the Amtrak and whatever other lines with the train station nearby.

Up the long north/south street on the west side of the courthouse square a restored movie theater, the Hanford, dominated, also as in days of yore. 

Hanford is ready for business and doing business.  Across the street, I saw that Hanford knew itself in the way a clothing store advertised itself above its doors in signage which read “Workingmen’s Clothes,” and under that “For Guys and Gals.”  In other words, hardy, quality clothes, ready to wear casually or work in that will last and suit the environment.  Jeans sell any day.

The temperature must have been over 100°.  I took a few photos, then walked south to the main cross street along which I had driven, noticing a lovely white art deco building across from the old hotel.  Its design suggested it had been a major banking establishment once, its stylish revamping included black awnings to protect the pedestrian from the sun.  The signage indicated it was billed to the government, functioning as the Kings County Jobs Center.  Every county has one still, it seems.  Hungry, I stopped at the restaurant owned by an immigrant from Jordan, for a cooling dish of Baba Ghanoosh (mashed garbanza beans with olive oil, onions, garlic, and tomatoes and warm pita bread).  On the wall across from my table hung a large framed photograph of a city of attractive glass buildings, and white houses glinting in the sun covering hilltops beyond.  Sophisticated, simple, lovely.  A city in Jordan.

Exiting the restaurant, I turned right, walked a block, turned the corner admired some more architecture plus an upgraded old west lodge building, of which I have seen a fair number in central California.  I turned back and walked north spotting functional shop buildings from 70 years to 120, all revamped. 

At the next corner I was at the east side of the old county building square, beautiful in a warm, slightly dark sandstone gold, suggesting early gothic and originally probably offered from its second story windows a vitalizing view of the rail business passing through town.  Whatever Hanford’s current economic condition, it does not seem in dire straits now, even if it has moved its real banks and courthouse somewhere else in town.

The interior of the old courthouse building, was mindfully designed according to the temper of its own time, with small blocks of hallways, then a break, then another small block, which one accessed through steps up and down, and the main cross aisle in the center above the others; with enough overhead fans to keeping the environment cool.  The interior was trimmed in dark wood, all around echoed silence even when voices were heard.  Out the north doors was a plaza for the square, and across from that a large auditorium in blue and white, with a veterans’ lodge post originally dedicated to the soldiers of the first world war next to it on the west.  It is now repurposed for Viet Nam era veterans. 

Passing the cinema on the way to the parking lot, the temperature was still over 100° reminding one about heat in the California desert.  It is not just about knowing what the temperature reads, but that it is hot all day, when it is hot.  Driving south past the job center and turning left in front of the large “railroad” hotel, in a few blocks, I saw heavy traffic, probably 10th street, turned right and followed the immediately spotted sign indicating and entrance to westbound Highway 198. 

Past Lemoore, 12 miles west, one can leave Highway 198 for Highway 41 at what appears to be a recently developed area of town with a new overpass.  Driving south one sees orchards all the way to Stratford, and historical farm town name at the border of the south and central Central Valley.  South of Stratford, Kings River again crosses the road but it is not long before it disappears from sight down a concrete tunnel – fini, finis, finito. 

From Stratford to Kettleman City is 15 miles.  The latter half of that drive through scrub reveals along the hazy horizon a dark band in a range of hills.  Trees!  Orchards!They bound I5, either side, upside and downside.Nice touch!  Just in time or one could begin to feel lonely and thirsty.  I was beginning to seriously muse over miners, and donkeys, well diggers and brimmed hats.

Highway 41 crosses a clear shallow cirque in the desert floor, it is actually the lakebed of diverted, defunct Tulare Lake, then comes in the Aqueduct at the base of the hills.  The Aqueduct refreshes by virtue of its appearance, and thankfully, it appears here a  substantive channel.  What one hand took away, another delivered.  The drive to access I5 here is two miles uphill with most drivers pulling off one side or the other into a fast food facility for cool refreshment before addressing the swift interstate ahead, bound to transport one from or to the sandy, beige grasslands of sadnesses, histories, mysteries and secrets of the Kettleman Hills.

By Sharon Pearce, © 27 July 2017

© Copyright 2018 S. Pearce. All rights reserved.